Study: Russians aren’t less happy – they just look that way to Americans

People from Western cultures often view Russians as gloomy and morose. But a recent study suggests Russians aren’t actually less happy – they are just less likely to physically express happiness to strangers.

The misperception of Russians as generally unhappy appears to be caused by cultural norms. While Americans are expected to put on a happy face, it is somewhat the opposite for Russians.

“The emotions a person shows you may not be the ones he/she is really feeling. Don’t assume that a person with a gruff demeanor is really uninterested in you or your perspective,” the study’s corresponding author, Kennon M. Sheldon of the University of Missouri, told PsyPost.

He said that the research was inspired by his own experiences in Russia.

“I am Senior international scientist working with a group of grant-funded Russian psychologists in Moscow.  I have to spend several weeks in Russia every summer.  It can be a little unpleasant because on the surface, Russians do not seem very friendly, in fact, they seem rather irritated,” he explained.

“I discussed this with my Russian colleagues and we devised a study to test whether Russians are really less happy, or whether they are simply less reluctant to display happiness, perhaps especially to strangers,” Sheldon said. “That is what we ended up finding, across multiple studies of hundreds of Russian students in comparison to hundreds of American students. “

The findings, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, were based on three questionnaires, which surveyed 1,653 Russian college students and 571 U.S. college students in total.

Russian students were no different from U.S. students in their self-reported levels of subjective well-being, a standard measure of happiness. But the Russian students were more likely to report inhibiting their happiness, especially to strangers.

“Russians are afraid of looking stupid by acting too happy with people they don’t know,” Sheldon explained.

The study also found that U.S. students who reported inhibiting expressions of happiness were more likely to report lower levels of well-being. However, this wasn’t the case for Russian students.

Similar cultural norms – known as display rules — could be at play in other parts of the world, Sheldon said. “We would like to test further cultures to see if it is more than just Russians who hesitate to display positive affect.”

The study, “Russians Inhibit the Expression of Happiness to Strangers: Testing a Display Rule Model“, was also co-authored by Liudmilla Titova, Tamara O. Gordeeva, Evgeny N. Osin, Sonja Lyubomirsky and Sergei Bogomaz. It was published April 6, 2017.